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Gameday: Maple Leafs host the Ottawa Senators

Two and a half weeks since the last time we did this hockey thing.

Ottawa Senators v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images

Toronto Maple Leafs vs Ottawa Senators at 7 PM
Streaming/broadcast on HNIC, CBC Gem, Sportsnet, City TV, TVAS

Here we are again, playing hockey. As I write this, I don’t really know if this game will happen, but signs point to yes it will go on, one of many games on the day the NHL doesn’t want ruined by Covid.

You can’t always get what you want, NHL, but you can hope for it. I suggest taking a moment to plan for worse outcomes though.

After a host of afternoon games, tonight the Winter Classic is over on the other Sportsnet station, where St. Louis and Minnesota play in a football field named after a chain of department stores that couldn’t figure Canada out. Fitting for the NHL that seems mystified by this nation.

The number of fans for tonight’s Leafs game is now capped at 1,000. The next game isn’t until Wednesday when the Oilers come to town, and then we’ll see what happens next. If you thought the randomness in hockey was annoying, the real world is laughing at us right now. Hockey at least has some predictability to it.

I did say “some”. The first game back after almost three weeks where half the team had Covid could be any sort of game at all. Ottawa last played on December 18, and has had players out, practices cancelled, but they didn’t actually have to figure out how to medivac a planeload of players and staff home for Christmas. They should have been on the back half of a back-to-back tonight, but their game yesterday was postponed under the “Canada is weird and they confuse us” clause of the new NHL scheduling paradigm.

Them

Who is even on the Senators right now? You never know these days. They have four players injured, including Nikita Zaitsev. They sent Michael Del Zotto and his $2 million salary to the AHL — imagine Del Zotto turning out to not look very good on a defence corps that desperately missed Zaitsev?

The Sens defence begins with Thomas Chabot, who is spectacular and ends with them having to play Erik Brännström even though they’ve never seemed to want to. Jacob Bernard-Docker is out, replaced by Lassi Thomson.

Matt Murray, who was publicly sent to the AHL to think about what he’d done (be himself) is back.

Are there soap operas in the forward corps? The problem might be finding enough healthy bodies, and the team called up some AHLers today. However, Brady Tkachuk is proving some things we really should try to remember about shooting % and just how long it can be in a trough. This is not good news for the Leafs.

The Senators are a bad team. Matt Murray was scapegoated to some extent, but the goalies are bad, the team is very bad defensively and they allow a lot more goals than they score. They produce offence at a mediocre rate, so if the goalie is hot, they can win, but their roster depth is terrible. Their prospect development is highly suspect, and given the Canadiens this year, they could have theoretically got a wild card playoff spot if they’d bothered to try even a little. The scary thing is this version of the team might be them trying very hard to succeed as they rebuild.

The likely lineup tonight is something like this one from Daily Faceoff:

Brady Tkachuk - Tim Stützle - Drake Batherson
Alex Formenton - Chris Tierney - Connor Brown
Zach Sandford - Dylan Gambrell - Austin Watson
Clark Bishop - Adam Gaudette - Logan Shaw

Thomas Chabot- Lassi Thomson
Nick Holden - Artem Zub
Erik Brännström - Victor Mete

Matt Murray
Filip Gustavsson

Us

As much fun as it is to rip the Senators, justifiably, for being really very bad, and also bad at being bad, because they likely won’t get Shane Wright... they can totally beat the Leafs, the Leafs can beat themselves, and/or the universe can just beat the Leafs for fun.

The Leafs are coming off a long layoff, and while players could stay in shape, they haven’t skated until the last few days as they’ve trickled back to the arena once they clear health checks.

The big news is the glorious and wonderful cap crunch the Leafs are caught in. Why is that good? Because it means everyone is healthy. Both Jack Campbell and Petr Mrázek are on the roster at the same time. And Mitch Marner has been activated off of LTIR.

The Leafs are using a clever scheme to temporarily make room for him by dropping Rasmus Sandin to the AHL. He’s not eligible for the Taxi Squad, so he shouldn’t be at any Leafs practices until they reverse this. Timothy Liljegren is in the same boat while also being in the Covid boat right now, so he can’t be the player moved.

The plan seems to be that Jake Muzzin and/or Morgan Rielly will not be cleared to play, leaving the Leafs with four healthy defenders not in Covid Protocol, and they can then call up emergency replacements in Sandin and Alex Biega. William Nylander’s status is in question as well.

The lineup for tonight should be:

Michael Bunting - Auston Matthews - Mitch Marner
Alex Kerfoot - John Tavares -William Nylander
Ilya Mikheyev - David Kämpf - Ondřej Kaše
Pierre Engvall - Jason Spezza - Wayne Simmonds

Some combination of:

TJ Brodie, Travis Dermott, Rasmus Sandin, Justin Holl, Alex Biega and then... ?

Jack Campbell looks to start with Petr Mrázek backing up.

Game

The arena will be mostly empty, but the game will go on. That’s all I got. Anything could happen in a game like this.